—The U.S. military struck a Syrian airfield near Homs, the opening salvo in the Trump administration’s response to this week’s chemical-weapons attack by the Assad regime. More here
—Republicans changed the rules of the Senate on judicial nominations, invoking the so-called “nuclear option” to lower the threshold for such votes from a supermajority of 60 to a simple majority of 51. More here
—We’re tracking the news stories of the day below. All updates are in Eastern Daylight Time (GMT -4).
UPDATE: Republicans Use 'Nuclear Option' After Democrats Filibuster Gorsuch Nomination
Updated at 1:08 p.m.
Republicans changed the rules of the Senate on judicial nominations, invoking the so-called “nuclear option” to lower the threshold for such votes from a supermajority of 60 to a simple majority of 51. The change came after Democrats filibustered the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court seat made vacant by the death last year of Justice Antonin Scalia. Republicans, who have a 52-48 majority in the Senate, had the support of at least three Democratic senators, but fell short of the 60 votes needed to overcome the Democratic filibuster. The party-line vote on the rule change was 52-48. Democrats, still smarting over the GOP’s refusal to hold hearings for Judge Merrick Garland, President Obama’s nominee for the same Supreme Court seat, have been unrelenting in their opposition of Gorsuch. They say if the president’s nominee cannot get the support of 60 U.S. senators, the White House should withdraw his nomination in favor of someone who can secure the support of a supermajority of senators. But it was always going to be an uphill effort, and Gorsuch is expected to be easily confirmed Friday by the Senate.
Devin Nunes Temporarily Recuses Himself From Russia Investigation
Representative Devin Nunes, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, announced Thursday he would temporarily recuse himself from the investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia. Nunes said in a statement it was “in the best interests” of his committee and Congress for him to temporarily step aside, adding: “I will continue to fulfill all my other responsibilities as Committee Chairman, and I am requesting to speak to the Ethics Committee at the earliest possible opportunity in order to expedite the dismissal of these false claims” filed by left-leaning organizations. Nunes has faced mounting pressure to step down from the investigation after it was revealed last month he visited the White House before and after announcing he had significant information to support President Trump’s unsubstantiated claims his transition team was surveilled by the intelligence community. That resulted in allegations from Democrats he was too eager to do Trump’s bidding, especially after it was revealed the information was given to him by White House officials. Nunes said the investigation will be taken over by Republican Representative Michael Conaway, with assistance from Representatives Trey Gowdy and Tom Rooney. As my colleague Russell Berman notes, though Speaker Paul Ryan reiterated his support for Nunes in a press conference following the announcement, “the chairman’s sudden move to quit the Russia probe raises questions about whether he misled the speaker about his handling of evidence that he viewed at the White House.”
North Korea Looms Over Meeting Between Trump, China's Xi
President Trump has called China a currency manipulator, he has criticized it on trade, and for, in his view, not doing enough to curtail North Korea’s activities. But while those issues loom over the meeting today between Trump and Xi Jinping, his Chinese counterpart, at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s estate in Florida, the two leaders are likely to discuss the one area where there could be a deal of some sort: North Korea. Their meeting comes a day after North Korea launched a ballistic missile off the coast of the Korean peninsula, the latest of several such tests the North has carried out in recent months. Last month U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ruled out talks with the North until it renounces its nuclear-weapons program, adding that when it came to the North, the U.S. kept all options on the table. The New York Timesnotes that Trump, behind closed doors, “intends to aggressively press his counterpart to more effectively use China’s economic leverage on North Korea to restrain its rogue leader, Kim Jong-un, from developing nuclear weapons.” Meanwhile, their discussions on trade could focus on the U.S. trade deficit with China, which stands at about $300 billion annually.
SNL’s inaugural episode of 2022 turned to dark, and often awkward, absurdity to explain our exasperating moment.
Saturday Night Live’s first episode of 2022 attempted to make up for the strange, empty show that ended 2021 amid the rise of the coronavirus’s Omicron variant. The cast was back, the masked audience was back, and the show, as they say, went on. But it couldn’t escape the world outside of 30 Rock’s doors.
This season has thus far blended thin political fare with dour-noted escapism, as though the pleasure of putting on a live show is more about continually agitating a bruise than finding true comedic relief. Like so many of its viewers, SNL has been waiting to turn a corner, to move past a scenario with little to laugh about. Last night’s episode felt like one long exasperated sigh. As James Austin Johnson’s Joe Biden wretchedly joked in the opening presidential address, “People got vaccinated and the pandemic got worse.”
As patience with the pandemic wanes, leaders in widely vaccinated democracies are deploying a new political strategy.
Politicians rarely set out to piss off their constituents, much less admit to doing so. So when French President Emmanuel Macron expressed his desire to antagonize France’s unvaccinated citizens into receiving COVID vaccinations, observers and many ofhisrivals were appalled, and some were a bit confused. Macron is up for reelection in April, and a quarter of his country remains unimmunized.
But what looked like a risky move for Macron could prove to be a more politically shrewd calculation, not because of whom it alienates, but rather because of whom it doesn’t. In France, and in other democratic countries around the world, the unvaccinated make up a relatively small segment of the population. Macron and his peers in countries such as Australia and Italy have calculated that condemning this group could be more politically effective than pandering to it. Even world-famous celebrities such as tennis star Novak Djokovic, whose unvaccinated status dashed his hopes of defending his Australian Open title, have become the targets of politicians’ ire. By taking a tougher line on the unvaccinated, Macron and other democratically elected leaders facing elections this year may be courting an energetic new voter base: the vaccinated, and ever more impatient, majority.
Is it okay to walk into a bar if you might sicken someone who might need hospital care?
“Three people walk into a bar …” What once launched a thousand jokes now sends a frisson of anxiety. What’s their vaccination status? Are they masked? Did they test before going out?
Nothing in life is risk free. I live in the United Kingdom, where every year several people die, according to the official statistics, by falling from a lower surface to a higher one. I’m still puzzling that one out. But if we’re always ambiently aware of risk, the coronavirus crisis has made us acutely sensitive to it, and pushed us to think beyond questions of personal risk to something much more ethically tangled: When is it morally acceptable for one person to subject another to risk? Is it okay to walk into a bar if you might sicken someone who might need hospital care? Each society settles the risk contract its own way, and that contract evolves over time. Right now, it’s evolving about as fast as the virus.
I thought I was done dating. But after moving across the country, I had to start again—this time, in search of platonic love.
Thirty-seven minutes after sitting down to lunch, Francesca and I hugged goodbye in a strip-mall parking lot. We were both fairly certain, I think, that we would not be seeing each other again. The high-school classmate of a friend’s friend’s husband, she’d been such a promising friendship prospect: She was a professional violinist and fellow New Yorker who was writing her dissertation on pollen. But I was awkward, smiling too much and saying things like “That’s so funny” in lieu of actual laughter, while Francesca (not her real name) was overworked and seemed full of derision for Bozeman, Montana, the town to which I had just moved, and from which she and her husband were determined to flee.
For such a familiar celestial body, the sun is still very mysterious—but we’re getting closer to it than ever before.
Kelly Korreck is still thinking about the time her spacecraft flew into the sun, how one moment, the probe was rushing through a stormy current of fast-moving particles, and the next, it was plunging somewhere quieter, where the plasma rolled like ocean waves. No machine had ever crossed that mysterious boundary before. But Korreck and her team had dispatched a mission for that exact purpose, and their plan worked. For the first time in history, a spacecraft had entered the sun’s atmosphere.
“This is a totally cool place to go—well, I guess, hot place to go,” Korreck, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told me. “We’ve touched plasma and gas that actually belongs to the sun.”
The top player in men’s tennis is yet another anti-vaccine athlete who’d rather create chaos than get a shot.
After a dramatic weeklong fight with the world’s top men’s tennis player, Australia’s immigration authorities wisely decided to revoke Novak Djokovic’s visa a second time because he flouted the country’s COVID-19 policies. Although the Australian authorities and tennis officials aren’t blameless, this is a huge, self-inflicted public-relations crisis for Djokovic that has smeared his legacy.
In Disney’s latest blockbuster, Encanto, a magical family called the Madrigals have escaped the violence and chaos of their homeland by crossing a river into an enchanted paradise that endows each with wondrous gifts that they use to protect and enhance their community. As the generations go by, however, the magic of the new world starts to fade and the family buckles under the pressure of their responsibilities while struggling to maintain the illusion that everything is fine. One grandchild, we learn, has no gift at all; another worries that she cannot keep up the appearance of perfection that is crushing her from the inside out; while another, still, panics that she is losing her superhuman strength. Luisa, the strong one, sings out her fears:
The new variant seems to be our quickest one yet. That makes it harder to catch with the tests we have.
It certainly might not seem like it given the pandemic mayhem we’ve had, but the original form of SARS-CoV-2 was a bit of a slowpoke. After infiltrating our bodies, the virus would typically brew forabout five or six daysbefore symptoms kicked in. In the many months since that now-defunct version of the virus emerged, new variants have arrived to speed the timeline up. Estimates for this exposure-to-symptom gap, called the incubation period, clocked in at about five days for Alpha and four days for Delta. Now word has it that the newest kid on the pandemic block, Omicron, may have ratcheted it down to as little asthree.
If that number holds, it’s probably bad news. These trimmed-down cook times are thought to play a major part in helping coronavirus variants spread: In all likelihood, the shorter the incubation period, the faster someone becomes contagious—and the quicker an outbreak spreads. A truncated incubation “makes a virus much, much, much harder to control,” Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told me.
Robert Malone claims to have invented mRNA technology. Why is he trying so hard to undermine its use?
Updated at 3:00 p.m. ET on August 23, 2021
Robert Malone—a medical doctor and an infectious-disease researcher—recently suggested that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines might actually make COVID-19 infections worse. He chuckled as he imagined Anthony Fauci announcing that the vaccination campaign was all a big mistake (“Oh darn, I was wrong!”) and would need to be abandoned. When he floated that nightmare scenario during a recent podcast interview with Steve Bannon, both men seemed almost delighted at the prospect of public-health officials and pharmaceutical companies getting their comeuppance. “This is a catastrophe,” Bannon declared, beaming at his guest. “You’re hearing it from an individual who invented the mRNA [vaccine] and has dedicated his life to vaccines. He’s the opposite of an anti-vaxxer.”
Climate change is a tough subject for any film, let alone a satire.
Adam McKay’s disaster satire Don’t Look Up is many things at once: a parable of our distracted society, a primal scream of a warning, and a broad comedy from the writer/director of Anchorman. Such a delicate balance has made the star-studded Netflix film a polarizing movie.
Critics, audiences, and activists have both savaged and praised the movie, and the backlash has highlighted the difficulty of conveying an urgent message with comedy. Has political satire lost its power? Or has reality become so absurd that it’s now beyond parody?
That challenge was evident in the making of Don’t Look Up. As McKay told David Sims, he wrote the story about a planet-killing comet (and our society’s inability to act collectively to stop it) as a climate-change metaphor. But after the script was done, production shut down for the pandemic and he watched the follies of a real-life disaster surpass his fictional one.